Hindmarsh Island Royal Commission

The Hindmarsh Island Royal Commission was a legal investigation into the nature of female aboriginal religious myths that existed around Goolwa and Hindmarsh Island in South Australia. It was a product of the Hindmarsh Island bridge controversy.

In May 1995, the South Australian media carried reports that the 'secret women's business' had been fabricated. Five Ngarrindjeri women reportedly said that they did not believe in or had never heard of the 'secret women's business' until it had been raised by Doreen Kartinyeri. In June 1995 there were further allegations that two prominent members of the Ngarrindjeri community – Doug and Sarah Milera – had confirmed the allegations of fabrication.

In response, the South Australian Government established a Royal Commission on 16 June 1995. A former South Australian District Court judge, Mrs Iris Stevens, was appointed as Royal Commissioner. In brief, the Royal Commissioner was appointed to inquire into and report on whether any aspect of the 'women's business' was a fabrication and, if so, how the fabrication occurred, its extent and purpose.

Controversy plagued the work of the Royal Commission. The 'proponent women' refused to give evidence to the Commission; 'dissident' Ngarrindjeri women claimed threats and intimidation; Ngarrindjeri elder, Doug Milera reportedly withdrew his allegations that the 'secret women's business' had been fabricated; amateur historian, Betty Fisher, told the Commission she had first been told of the 'secret women's business' in 1960; and anthropologists from the South Australian Museum disputed the existence of the 'secret women's business'.

The Royal Commission's report was published in December 1995. Its major findings were:

  • the '... 'women's business' emerged in response to a need of the anti-bridge lobby to provide something of sufficient cultural significance to warrant the making of a declaration by the Federal Minister';
  • the 'women's business' was unknown to the twelve dissident Ngarrindjeri women who gave evidence before the Commission and who were described by the Royal Commissioner as 'credible witnesses';
  • looking at 'the whole of the evidence, including the history of events, the anthropological evidence and the evidence of the dissident women, ... the whole claim of the "women's business" from its inception was a fabrication;
  • the purpose of the fabrication was obtain a declaration prohibiting the construction of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge under the Commonwealth's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984.

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